Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died this week, the founder and leader of a world-wide movement. He profoundly influenced the lives of millions of followers, and offers an exemplar in modern times of the charismatic spiritual leader
A homily would map the achievements of the special one. A critique would balance and evaluate the views of the faithful and detractors. I feel only able to offer a few reflections.
In death, it appears that details of his origins are suitably shrouded in some mystery. He may have been born as early as 1911, or as late as 1918. As an infant, he may have been known as Mahesh Prasad Varma, or as Mahesh Srivastava.
More clearly documented is the influence of his spiritual guide, Swami Brahmanda Saraswati, from whom he developed his lifelong interest in the transcendent.
It is now part of the world’s assessment, that the Maharishi’s impact on the mundane world of current affairs reached its peak in the 1960s, accelerated by his celebrity followers, and particularly the Beatles.
Popular knowledge may also extend to identifying him with the growth through his teachings and writings, of the Transcendental Meditation movement and its associated spiritual, educational, and political activities. Followers claim upward of five million are devoting a period each morning and night to their observances.
As publicity and attention grew, so did detractors. He was mocked for the contradictions in his life and his words. Could his views on the pointlessness of material possessions be squared with manifestations of resources gained? Did the claim of chastity come under strain in a rock cave, in a story with echoes of A Passage to India?
Not so much contradictions, but equally baffling to outsiders, were claims for the power of thought to change world events, and exercises involving yogic flying.
A Special Charisma?
The term charismatic has been applied to people in many walks of life, departing from earlier treatments of charisma which specifically referred to a spiritual or transcendent force transmitted to followers from a leader possessing supernatural endowments.
Perhaps we should borrow a classification from another field. We talk of special and everyday creativity.
So why not special and everyday charisma? The classification is still too crude to accommodate the variations, and I’m not comfortable with results attempting to place people at different levels, with the great prophets at the top, exceptional historical and modern leaders on the slopes, and gradations of everyday leaders of business, politics, and sporting teams towards the base of this conceptual Mount Olympus.
In previous posts I have written about Nelson Mandela, who probably remains highest up the mountain for me. Mandela also had the advantage of privilege of birth, and born to lead his people. The Maharishi was, under the Indian caste system, unable to be nominated as the chosen spiritual heir to Swami Brahmanda Saraswati. He had the overturn traditional leadership norms, providing another belief system with himself at the head. Which is what he did.
In sport we blogged about Kevin Keegan, hailed as the Messiah recently on his return to Newcastle United (his third-coming as he modestly put it at the time). Where should we place Kevin? Alongside the self-styled special one Jose Mourinho?
And where might Tony Blair fit in?
Further down the mountain, there are those whose charisma is acquired through contact with a special one. This is the process of routinization of charisma, which is needed to explain how charisma persists over time.
Some say we are moving into a period of post-charismatic leadership. But the Maharishi’s story may still serve to help us compare and contrast the behaviours of so-called charismatic leaders, and the ways in which they achieve influence over others.